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Journo Talk 6: ‘Maybe George Orwell was right!’

by Sam Blackledge

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Cricket journalism, despite what the BCCI might have us believe, is no longer simply confined to newsprint.

Barely 20 years ago, a report in the morning paper and a flick through Ceefax was the only way to find out what was going on.

Now there is so much content pouring from various new media platforms, it’s difficult to keep track.

At the forefront of this revolution is a growing community of cricket bloggers.

They might not have mastheads over their names or a 30-year playing career behind them, but some believe they are becoming just as influential as their cohorts in the press box.

Dan Whiting and Liam Kenna founded The Middle Stump four years ago, attracting almost 750,000 hits and a loyal worldwide following.

The site is bolshy, irreverent, goofy and not afraid to speak its mind.

Where else would you find a rude joke about Lenny Henry sandwiched between references to Hawaii Five-O and Sooty and Sweep? Certainly not in The Daily Telegraph.

Dan, who lives in North London, played club cricket for more than 30 years and started blogging as an idle hobby.

 I have tried to write from a different angle, and people seem to enjoy reading about the game while having a bit of fun at the same time,” he says.

“I don’t want to write standard match reports; I wanted to write about the game in a way that no-one else does, and that seems to resonate.

“The stuff I write is original – whether that is good or bad – but I haven’t plagiarised or borrowed ideas from other blogs. Not all writers can say that.”

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Dan believes the decline of cricket in mainstream print has left a gap in the market.

“The desire from the public is out there, and if they aren’t getting their cricketing fix via the national press then bloggers can fill it,” he says.

The blog led to work with The Cricket Paper, where Dan recently completed an 18-part feature on county out grounds.

Has he learned to adjust his writing style for his new bosses?

“Massively!” he says.

“Carter-Ruck, Schillings and all the libel lawyers in the country would be involved if I wrote the same way.

“You can still write differently for proper work – just maybe cut out the swear words.”

Back in September Dan penned a furious open letter to the ECB, saying their decision to pursue a city-based T20 tournament was “the day English cricket sold its soul to television”.

Looking back, he has no regrets.

“Too many mainstream publication pieces are factual and there are not enough opinion-based pieces out there,” he says.

“Blogging does give you the freedom to do that. I had some feedback from people ‘within cricket’ who loved the piece but couldn’t publicly say.

“Are journalists scared of losing their accreditation with the ECB by saying the wrong thing these days? If so, we are living in sad times. Perhaps George Orwell was right!”

In April 2013 Dan and Liam published a book called ‘Cricket Banter’.

I received it as a Christmas stocking filler the following year, but it soon found its way to the charity shop.

I felt the book was trying to turn my beloved game – a strange, thoughtful, nerdy pastime – into a laddish playground knockabout.

“You’re not the only one to say that,” he says.

“It’s like music – some people like indie, some house, some classical.

“Likewise, some people loved the book and others hated it. Jonathan Liew panned it in The Telegraph, although it did wonders for sales.

“As for being laddish, well I enjoy a beer at the cricket and writing from that angle. I hope I didn’t ruin your Christmas though!”

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Dan recently released a self-penned book, ‘The Definitive Guide to Club Cricket’, which seems to be much more heartfelt and based on his own experience.

He describes it as “an anthropological study of club cricketers”, with a foreword written by Yorkshire seamer Jack Brooks.

“Every club has a weird scorer, a beleaguered skipper struggling to find players on a Saturday morning, a boring AGM, a bent umpire, so clubs identify with the characters involved,” he says.

“There are some serious articles in there too, such as Sunday cricket slowly dying and money coming into the game at club level.”

What advice would Dan offer to other would-be bloggers hoping to break into his world?

“Be yourself, be original and be interesting,” he says.

“No one cares what you think really, so make them sit up and take notice.”

 

Journo Talk is taking a break while it goes on paternity leave, but will be back in 2017.

Are you a cricket journalist? Would you like to be featured?

E-mail samblackledge@yahoo.com or tweet @samblackledge

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Complaining about selection is one of the joys of being a cricket fan

by Sam Blackledge

 

After England’s defeat to Bangladesh at Dhaka, fans were quick to voice their dismay at the balance of the team.

Some might say we should give the selectors a break. They’re trying their best to cope with a ridiculous international schedule, and they are a darn sight more qualified than the rest of us.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to sit on our sofas moaning that the likes of Ansari, Ballance and Rashid are not cut out for Test cricket, as if we have been anywhere near that level ourselves.

But then again, complaining about selection policy is one of the great joys of being a cricket fan.

Perhaps it’s a peculiarly English thing, like queuing, talking about the weather, or existential self-loathing. Or maybe cricket fans worldwide think they could do a better job with a scrap of paper and numbers 1 to 11 left blank.

It’s why the fantasy football industry is still thriving, and it’s a major reason why we all still love sport. The feeling that if only those in charge would ask us, we could sort it out.

 

The comedian Dylan Moran put it best.

He said: “Look at the people who give it everything. The Beckhams or Roy Keanes of this world. Running up and down the field, swearing and shouting at each other.

“Are they happy? No! They’re destroying themselves. Who’s happy? You. The fat f**ks watching them, with a beer can balanced on your ninth belly, roaring advice at the best athletes in the world.”

Social media, of course, has made all of this so much more visible.

When 43-year-old John Emburey was recalled to the England Test team in 1995, I have a vivid memory of seeing the news on Teletext, turning to my dad and simply saying: “Emburey?”

If that happened now, I probably wouldn’t even turn around. I would reach for my phone and spew my thoughts straight on to Twitter, and they would immediately be buried under the thousands of others doing the exact same thing.

The selectorial merry-go-round is sure to be in full flow as England kick off against India on Wednesday.

Nobody seems to know whether we stand a chance against the might of Kohli, Ashwin and the rest.

But one thing is for sure: if we couldn’t complain, we wouldn’t be half as interested.

This piece first appeared at Last Word On Cricket

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Cats, cynicism and ankylosing spondylitis: All hail the reign of King Cricket

By Sam Blackledge

Every day I step inside a room which not many people know about.

Most days I offer a comment or a quip. Sometimes I stay quiet and watch.

It is said that if you use the internet in the right way, it will reward you.

Follow the right people, bookmark the right sites, type the right combination of characters and eventually you will find your niche.

The other people in the room are among the most intelligent, witty, kind and self-deprecating folk I’ve come across.

I have never met any of them face-to-face.

Welcome to the world of King Cricket.

At first glance – basic design, topical posts, stock images – it looks like just another cricket blog. But peer behind the curtain and you will find so much more.

Established by Alex Bowden in 2006, King Cricket has evolved into a self-sufficient online community, removed from the gibbering indignation and pitchfork-wielding ignorance of social media.

Allow me to introduce you to the gang.

There’s Bert, the wise old guru who sets impenetrable crosswords and is always ready with a rambling anecdote or scathing grammatical critique.

There’s Ged, the die-hard Middlesex fan who provides comprehensive reports of his global travels, accompanied by Benjy the Baritone Ukulele, Ivan the Smart Phone, Charley the Gent and Escamillo Escapillo.

Then there’s Ceci, Balladeer, Daneel, Mike, Bradders, Howe, Miriam, and of course Uncle J-Rod, who despite ascending to global media stardom still pops back occasionally to rub shoulders with the peasants.

I realise this probably isn’t making much sense. I sound like a wide-eyed fresher on his first trip home from uni, ranting to his parents about the zany antics of his new-found chums. Indulge me a little longer.

The rules of the room are fairly loose, but here are a few principles you must follow in order to become a full member:

An undying devotion to former Kent captain Robert Key.

Mild indifference to Warwickshire batsman Ian Bell.

A fundamental belief in the primacy and romance of Test cricket.

Deep loathing of ex-ECB chairman Giles Clarke.

A healthy dose of misanthropy and scepticism.

An appreciation of a rudimental Venn diagram.

A passion for the art of pedantry.

A penchant for a tortured pun.

Once a post entitled ‘West Indian cricketer name generator’ – take your mother’s maiden name and the town of your birth – attracted 120 comments. That was a good day.

Regular features include ‘Lord Megachief of Gold’, ‘Cricket bats pictured in unusual places’, ‘Matthew Hayden watch’ and many more.

We share jokes about grammar, science, mathematics, fallacies of logic, arthouse cinema, and everything in between.

Just last week, there was a thread about the precise definition of the word ‘amortise’, which sparked an in-joke about Just for Men hair dye, which led to Ged referencing Chico Marx.

The following day I found a group swapping puns based around the Italian bread Focaccia.

The chaos is all expertly orchestrated by Alex, the eponymous King Cricket. (He is at pains to point out that he never gave himself the title, but it has stuck nonetheless.)

His pithy posts are perfectly pitched, mixing anger, cynicism and on-the-nose analysis with baffling surrealism and jokes about ankylosing spondylitis.

He is not afraid to make a hard-hitting point about politics, governance or corruption, but will happily follow up with a picture of a cat looking conspicuously indifferent to a cricket book.

Above all he has an uncanny ability to say what we’re all thinking, without appearing to ever be trying very hard. He writes as both serious cricket journalist and ordinary fan.

If there were any justice in the world, he would be writing for a broadsheet newspaper or running the ICC.

But I doubt he would last very long, due to his tendency to describe himself as “largely unarsed”.

Although I was massive geek in my youth, I never quite embraced my geekiness until now.

Discovering King Cricket was like finding the friendship group I never had.

We tease, but it’s never spiteful. We listen to each other’s stories and share a genuine passion for our chosen sport and, more importantly, everything surrounding it.

Three years ago, Alex wrote a post asking why we keep coming back and whether the site is worthwhile.

The replies – all 199 of them – were heartfelt and largely free from the usual wisecracking irony.

The final word must go to veteran commenter Bert, posting in that same thread.

“Some of the funniest things I have ever read are on here,” he said.

“There is always that sense of sitting at the match, mid-afternoon, slightly pissed, talking drivel with friends.

“Sometimes you laugh, sometimes they laugh, sometimes they just stare at you and cough gently before changing the subject. It’s hard to explain, but the cricket is central to this, without being dominant.

“That’s what makes this website different from Twitter. The article sets the scene; everything else hangs from it, even if the link seems occasionally tenuous.

“It doesn’t have to be long, or insightful, or even right. But it does have to be there.

“The cats know this. They’re not merely indifferent – they’re indifferent to cricket, which is not the same.”

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The ECB must end its south-east Test match bias

THERE was a time when you knew where you were with English Test venues. For so long the old favourites of Edgbaston, Lord’s, Old Trafford, Trent Bridge, Headingley and The Oval held the monopoly on five-day matches every summer. Then in 2003 Chester-Le-Street, now unfortunately known as the Emirates Durham International Cricket Ground, broke the cycle by welcoming Zimbabwe. The visitors were bowled out for 94 in their first dig and lost by an innings and plenty. The RIverside embraced its big moment and a change appeared to be coming – Test cricket would surely now reach more far-flung parts of the country.

Over the last decade, there have indeed been matches played at Cardiff’s Swalec Stadium, Hampshire’s Rose (or Ageas) Bowl – and that’s it. Bristol has hosted One Day Internationals, but none of the other 13 main first-class grounds get a look-in.

When I was growing up, I saw a lot of cricket. I was lucky to live just down the road from Edgbaston, and my love for the game was fuelled by the all-conquering Warwickshire side of the mid-1990s. But the real thrill was Test cricket. My first Test was England v West Indies in 1991. I was six years old. On the third day, Patrick Patterson and Curtly Ambrose demolished a decent England batting line-up on their way to a seven-wicket win. Gooch, Atherton, Hick, Lamb, Ramprakash, Russell, all gone in the blink of an eye.

I squinted across at the blurry city end scoreboard (I had yet to be diagnosed as chronically short-sighted) showing the not out scores of Derek Pringle and Chris Lewis, the latest pair in a long line of auditionees for the role of “The New Botham”. I could never have known that I was in for another ten years of watching England lose in ever more inventive ways. But I knew Test cricket was for me.

Next summer, India will play Tests at Trent Bridge, Lord’s, The Rose Bowl, Old Trafford and The Oval. That’s three games in the South-East, two of which are in London, and just two others in the rest of the UK. Lord’s also gets a Sri Lanka Test in June, along with Headingley. Edgbaston misses out on Test cricket for the second year running, despite being home to one of the highest populations of British Asians.

Between 2010 and 2011, the pavilion end of the ground was completely redeveloped at a cost of £32 million, bringing the capacity to 25,000. A handful of ODIs and a season of one man and his dog watching county cricket is in danger of wasting what has become a top-class sporting venue.

I can make my peace with Edgbaston losing out. This season they were compensated with the pick of the Champions Trophy matches and a sparkling T20 county finals day. Trent Bridge is not so far away, and I know several Brummies who gladly made the trip to Nottingham for this summer’s Ashes and may do the same next year. But the south-east bias shows a disappointing lack of vision.

Every overseas cricketer dreams of playing at Lord’s. Of course, a Test summer would not be complete without a visit to the home of cricket, and The Oval is always a fitting venue for the final Test of the summer. The ECB will perhaps argue London is the most densely populated area of the country and is easy to access. But adding Southampton means three of India’s five Tests will be played within a 100-mile radius.

Not all county grounds are up to scratch, of course. In order to host a high-profile Test between two of the best sides in the world, you must be more than just a pitch and a pavilion. But Durham, formerly a forgotten northern outpost, is a prime example of what can be done with investment and support.

Not everyone can afford to travel to see Test cricket. From where I live in Cornwall, it’s 200 miles to the nearest Test venue. Add in the spiralling cost of matchday tickets, and parents and children will drift away from the game, or decide not to explore it at all. The ECB must look beyond the capital and take a punt on some developing stadiums to inspire the next generation of English cricketers.

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